Protecting Your Business?

As we continue to build and grow our service provider business, we have been very lucky to have a great group of vendors to work with.  Some of those vendors I would consider to be partners as well, and a select few of them have become trusted advisers.  Because the infrastructure/software is just the enabler for the services, the secret sauce lies in how you put those pieces together with the people, process, pricing and procedure, those select partners have to be very familiar with WHAT you are doing, not just the hardware you are using.

And therein lies the challenge: is it possible to trust a vendor at that level, especially when you know they are, or could be, working with your competitors?  How far does ethics go in the face of an increasingly competitive market and increasingly high quotas?  How do you protect your company from your partners, and protect your partners from themselves?

Just so we are all clear, this is a 100% theoretical argument, especially based on the vendors that I get to work with.  But the question is still valid, I think, from both sides of the equation.  For the service provider, how much can you involve your vendor partners in your business?  Is there a formalized way that you protect your IP and business from your vendors, be it an NDA or other legal document?  Do you accept that you can’t lean on vendor partners in that way, even if the lack of collaboration ends up delaying your time-to-market or otherwise adversely impacts your business?

From the vendor side, how do you build that level of trust?  How do you leverage your knowledge base and personnel to the best effect with the customer when the customer knows you are working with their competitors?  How do you resist the temptation to leverage the insight gained from one customer to aid in a sale to another?  Unlike in the enterprise space where the internal IT operations aren’t usually core to the business of the company, the knowledge you gain from the services providers is, quite literally, gold.

Let’s take a benign example: we are doing a proof of concept for a the VBlock, and in the week that we are working in the lab we develop a fully automated way to deploy UCS blades, including PXE boot, boot from SAN, SAN provisioning and a fully scripted install of vSphere that allows us to have the blade registered with the cluster and ready to provision in 24 minutes.  Obviously the vendors and partners that we had in there were part of that testing and helped with the solution, so who owns that?  It’s a possible differentiator to my company, and it was in developed in conjunction with a group of partners in a POC that was being run on our behalf.  Is it reasonable for me to expect smart people to forget that they worked on something cool that could have benefits for a large number of UCS users?  Does it hurt the value of the POC that we don’t get to “own” the resulting work product?  I’m not asking these questions rhetorically, I’m honestly working through how I feel.

How about a more direct example: let’s say we’ve figured out how to make multi-tenant SRM work through a combination of scripting, custom development and a little bit of magic.  In order to take this new product to market as a service, I have to involve partners.  As part of putting this together, I have orders to place, I may have professional services to engage, I may have to talk to VMware about licensing.  At each step, the more I involve those partners the faster I’m going to get to market.  After all, they are some of the smartest people out there, and they are going to see things that I don’t and have ideas that I didn’t think of.  But each of these interactions also threatens to dilute the value of this new product.  What if my storage team also takes care of a couple of my competitors?  Would it be reasonable to see that a discussion around this new thing we figured out could be used to drive disk sales?  How about VMware using our information to increase SRM license sales?  What if our SI decided to package the blueprints to this new product and shop it around to other companies?  Would any of that be out of bounds?

Every time I think about this I come down on another side of the argument.  I think it’s going to take me a while to fully work through how I feel about it, and where I’d like the line to be.  How about you out there?  Where’s the line for you?